EU: The great Beijing-Brussels disconnect

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Jul 8 16:14:47 UTC 2008

Greater China
     Jul 8, 2008

 The great Beijing-Brussels disconnect
By Axel Berkofsky

Europe doesn't like rocking the boat. Especially with Beijing sitting
in the bow and requesting Brussels not meddle with its "internal
affairs", such as human rights, Tibet and Taiwan. Instead, China would
rather that Europe just provide it with what it wants: money and
high-tech know-how to keep its economy growing at double-digit growth
rates. Like it or not (and European Union bureaucrats in charge of
drafting Brussels' China policy statements and papers don't), a
growing list of bilateral problems, as opposed to nice-sounding
political rhetoric referring to each other as "strategic partners",
has moved to the very top of the EU-China bilateral agenda.

Europe's trade deficit with China is growing at the rate of 15 million
euro (US$23.5 million) per hour. And Beijing's refusal to enforce
intellectual property rights or remove market access obstacles for
European businesses is what Brussels wants to alleviate as soon as

Business over principle, as usual

Beijing won't do this, of course. And add human rights, Tibet, Taiwan
and freedoms of the press, speech and religion in China and you'll get
an idea how much is on the EU Commission's (executive branch's)plate
in terms of implementing China policies on behalf of 27 member states.
Unfortunately, the commission's mandate and, more importantly, its
authority are very limited. This leads, more often than not, to
toothless agreements embedded in uninspiring policy papers. Worse,
from the commission's perspective, member states' policies towards
China are anything but coherent and often change depending on who
wants what and when from Beijing.

For example, there would either be no support or strong opposition
from a country like France for the commission becoming more outspoken
on human rights in China should this coincide with an Airbus deal to
sell airplanes to China. In fact, on his trip to China last November,
French President Nicolas Sarkozy "uninvited" his minister for human
rights, Rama Yade, at short notice to make sure that human rights in
China would not stand in the way of Airbus signing a deal to open a
factory in China. They didn't; France and China signed that and other
deals worth 10 billion euro (US$15 billion). This may have only been
possible because Yade didn't board the plane to Beijing with her boss.

Shutting up less, sometimes

To be fair, the EU's criticism on human rights in China in general and
Tibet in particular has recently turned from cautious and wishy-washy
to - by Brussels' standards - outspoken and straightforward. On June
12, the EU Commission upgraded its previously overly tame criticism on
Beijing's Tibet policies and posted a strongly worded statement on
Tibet in reply to a number of petitions received by non-governmental
organizations, exile Tibetans and others urging the commission to
express a position on the human-rights situation in Tibet that went
beyond being "worried".

"The commission remains seriously concerned about the continuing
human-rights violations in Tibet, the allegations of torture and
abusive treatment of Tibetans in prison, raids in monasteries and
deportations of monks, unfair trials for the Tibetans involved in the
unrest and reinforced 'Patriotic Education Campaign' directed against
the Dalai Lama," the statement reads.
Being "worried and concerned" on the record, however, is not the same
as actually putting real political pressure on Beijing. Such an option
is not currently on the commission's China policy agenda.

Saying it in Chinese
But studying Chinese, as turns out, is on the EU's agenda and the
commission is planning to equip its bureaucrats and diplomats with
skills to speak about, and hear lectures on, Tibet, Taiwan and human
rights in Chinese. It set up an in-house Chinese language training
program which reportedly more than 100 officials have already signed
on to.

However, the great majority of the 100 officials working on China in
the commission do not speak any Chinese. It should be said that a
working-level command of Chinese as opposed to ordering a beer in a
Beijing hotel bar is a matter of years.

Taking years is too long in an institution in which bureaucrats rotate
every three to four years. For example, a bureaucrat who has worked on
relations with Japan or China for four years might find himself or
herself working on Europe's relations with Greenland the next four
years - starting from zero as far as knowledge on the country is

The commission's rotation system takes into account nationality,
gender and other criteria to make sure that not necessarily the most
qualified candidate out of the 25,000-member commission staff gets the
job in question.

Inevitably, this system produces bureaucrats who spend six months to
one year familiarizing themselves with the country or EU policy area
they are assigned to before making any sense of the job.

Show us the money
In recent years, the commission's China desk has repeatedly announced
it will invest money and resources into contemporary Chinese studies
in Europe. That sounded good, but Brussels has yet to provide European
universities and think-tanks with funds to produce work and research
on contemporary China relevant to academia or policymakers.

The commission does not finance a single contemporary China studies
program at a European university or think-tank and instead focuses on
handing out the occasional grant to research consortia in Europe and
China to work on narrowly defined China-related topics for limited
periods of time.

Ironically (as opposed to "humorously" for those who have done it),
filling in the commission's grant application forms can be as
time-consuming as the research itself. Consequently, many European
think-tanks and universities have turned to private sponsors.

Worse, due to its complex bureaucratic and administrative procedures
and rules, Brussels has become infamous for paying very late and
employing consultancies to administer grants on its behalf instead of
dealing with the recipients directly.

This is also a case of throwing European taxpayers' money down the
drain because the consultancies' input typically has very little do
with "consultancy" and more to do with taking care of basic logistics
and the pocketing of excessive overhead funding provided by the EU

The commission remains above all interested in seeing an "event". For
example, a public seminar or roundtable at the end of an EU-sponsored
project scores points for visibility as opposed to substance. More
often than not, there is no follow-up whatsoever. Ignoring the policy
advice and recommendations they've paid researchers for remains a
commission specialty.

The recently re-activated commission-sponsored European China Academic
Network is a positive initiative although its activities are limited
to organizing an occasional conference or workshop as opposed to
in-depth research on China.

Upgrading the partnership, maybe
As far as Brussels is concerned, the good news is the EU-China
Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA). However, apart from
reading on the official record that the PCA will take EU-China ties to
a vaguely defined "next level", there is scant information available
on how exactly bilateral relations will change in quality and quantity
with the new PCA.

Today, Brussels and Beijing are cooperating actively in almost all
imaginable policy areas through the 25 so-called "sectoral dialogues".
Most Brussels policy observers agree that the PCA is likely to be an
update of the 1985 EU-China cooperation agreement as opposed to the
next "big bang" of EU-China relations.

Either way, the EU is keen to sign the agreement sooner rather than
later. After all, signing nice-sounding agreements with the rest of
the world is what it does best, at least judging by the number of
bilateral "action plans" and joint "policy papers" coming out of
Brussels on a very regular basis.

Beijing, on the other hand, is in less of a rush to sign the PCA, in
view of the EU's increasing "fuss about human rights and the trade
deficit", as a Chinese scholar put it to Asia Times Online.

If it turns out the commission and its counterparts in Beijing do not
have additional aces up their sleeves in regard to the upgrade of
Brussels-Beijing ties, signing the elusive PCA is at least another
photo opportunity for policymakers and bureaucrats to reinforce their
on-paper status as the best of friends.

Dr Axel Berkofsky is adjunct professor at the University of Milan and
advisor on Asian affairs at the Brussels-based European Policy Center
(EPC). The views expressed here are the author's
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